Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

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- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Byzantine Silk Industry

Detail of a Byzantine silk with a pattern of quadrigas (four-horse chariots) in roundels, from the tomb of Charlemagne, Aachen. Musée National du Moyen Age, Cluny, Paris

The Byzantine capital of Constantinople was the first significant silk-weaving center in Europe. Silk was one of the most important commodities in the Byzantine economy, used by the state both as a means of payment and of diplomacy.

Raw silk was bought from China and made up into fine fabrics that commanded high prices throughout the world. Later, silkworms were smuggled into the Empire and the overland silk trade gradually became less important. After the reign of Justinian I, the manufacture and sale of silk became an imperial monopoly, only processed in imperial factories, and sold to authorized buyers.

Byzantine silks are significant for their brilliant colours, use of gold thread, and intricate designs that approach the pictorial complexity of embroidery in loom-woven fabric. Byzantium dominated silk production in Europe throughout the Early Middle Ages, until the establishment of the Italian silk-weaving industry in the 12th century and the conquest and break-up of the Byzantine Empire in the Fourth Crusade (1204).

The Silk Industry

By J.B. Bury
History of the Later Roman Empire (1889 1st edition / and 1923)

The efforts of Justinian and his Abyssinian friends to break down the Persian monopoly of the silk trade had been frustrated by the superior organisation of Persian mercantile interests in the markets of Ceylon. There was one other route by which it might have been possible to import silk direct from China, namely overland through Central Asia and north of the Caspian Sea to Cherson. This possibility was no doubt considered. Justinian, however, does not seem to have made any attempt to realise it, but it was to be one of the political objects of his successor.

Emperor Justinian
After the outbreak of the war with Persia in A.D. 540, the private silk factories of Berytus and Tyre suffered severely. It must be explained that, in order to prevent the Persian traders from taking advantage of competition to raise the price of silk, all the raw material was purchased from them by the commerciarii of the fisc, who then sold to private enterprises all that was not required by the public factories (gynaecia) which ministered to the needs of the court.

 Justinian instructed the commerciarii not to pay more than 15 gold pieces (£9:7:6) for a pound of silk, but he could not force the Persians to sell at this price, and they preferred not to sell at all or at least not to sell enough to serve the private as well as the public factories. It is not clear whether hostilities entirely suspended the trade, but at best they seriously embarrassed it, and as the supplies dwindled the industrial houses of Tyre and Berytus raised the prices of their manufactures.

The Emperor intervened and fixed 8 gold pieces a pound as the maximum price of silk stuffs. The result was that many manufactures were ruined. Peter Barsymes, who was Count of the Sacred Largesses in A.D. 542, took advantage of the crisis to make the manufacture of silk a State monopoly, and some of the private industries which had failed were converted into government factories. This change created a new source of revenue for the treasury.

Chance came to the aid of Justinian ten years later and solved the problem more effectively than he could have hoped. Two monks, who had lived long in China or some adjacent country, visited Constantinople (A.D. 552) and explained to the Emperor the whole process of the cultivation of silkworms. Though the insect itself was too ephemeral to be carried a long distance, they suggested that it would be possible to transport eggs, and were convinced that they could be hatched in dung, and that the worms could thrive on mulberry leaves in Europe as successfully as in China.

The coronation mantle for the Holy Roman Emperor was made from Byzantine silk, embroidered, 3.4 meter wide, and weighed 11 kg.

Justinian offered them large rewards if they procured eggs and smuggled them to Constantinople. They willingly undertook the adventure, and returned a second time from the East with the precious eggs concealed in a hollow cane. The worms were developed under their instructions, Syria was covered with mulberry trees, and a new industry was introduced into Europe. Years indeed must elapse before the home-grown silk sufficed for the needs of the Empire, and in the meantime importation through Persia continued, and Justinian's successor attempted to open a new way of supply with the help of the Turks.

If we regard commerce as a whole, there is no doubt that it prospered in the sixth century. Significant is the universal credit and currency which the Imperial gold nomisma enjoyed. Cosmas Indicopleustes, arguing that the "Roman Empire participates in the dignity of Christ, transcending every other power, and will remain unconquered till the final consummation," mentions as a proof of its eminent position that all nations from one end of the earth to the other use the Imperial coinage in their mercantile transactions.

Illustrative anecdotes had been told of old by merchants who visited Ceylon. Pliny relates that a freedman who landed there exhibited Roman denarii to the king, who was deeply impressed by the fact that all were of equal weight though they bore the busts of different Emperors. Sopatros, a Roman merchant who went to Ceylon in an Ethiopian vessel in the reign of Zeno or Anastasius, told Cosmas that he had an audience of the king along with a Persian who had arrived at the same time. The king asked them, "Which of your monarchs is the greater?" The Persian promptly replied, "Ours, he is the king of kings."

Byzantine Silk

When Sopatros was silent, the king said, "And you, Roman, do you say nothing?" Sopatros replied, "If you would know the truth, both the kings are here." "What do you mean?" asked the king. "Here you have their coins," said Sopatros, "the nomisma of the one and the drachm of the other. Examine them." The Persian silver coin was good enough, but could not be compared to the bright and shapely gold piece. Though Sopatros was probably appropriating to himself an ancient traveller's tale, it illustrates the prestige of the Imperial mint.

The independent German kingdoms of the West still found it to their interest to preserve the images and superscriptions of the Emperors on their gold money. In the reign of Justinian the Gallic coins of the Merovingian Franks have the Emperor's bust and only the initials of the names of the kings. The Suevians in Spain continued to reproduce the monetary types of Honorius and Avitus. The last two Ostrogothic kings struck Imperial coinage, only showing their hostility to Justinian by substituting for his image and inscriptions those of Anastasius.

Byzantine Silk
Silk with "Samson" and the Lion (detail), late 6th–early 7th century. Made in Eastern Mediterranean. Weft-faced compound twill (samit) in polychrome silk. Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C

J.B. Bury - History of the Later Roman Empire           (Byzantine Silk)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice piece , very enjoyable